What types of activity should I do?

Becoming more physically active is a positive change after a cancer diagnosis, whether you are living with cancer or have finished treatment. If possible, try to do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, balance, strength and flexibility.

Becoming active for the first time or returning to activity during or after cancer is not always easy. If you are going through cancer treatment, you may find it useful to plan your activity around this. Or if you usually feel very tired (fatigued) at a certain time of day, avoid planning activity for this time.

Think about what you are most interested in doing and what you would enjoy the most. You could make a list of the different activities you and your family and friends could try. There is not a single activity that is best for everyone. The important thing is to choose something that fits in with your life.

Exercise intensity

If you have not been active for a long time, you should increase your activity levels slowly. Try to do a little more activity each week.

This is how it feels to be active at different intensities (how much energy you use):

  • Light intensity – you are breathing and talking easily. It does not feel like there is a lot of effort involved.
  • Moderate intensity – your breathing is quicker and deeper, but you can talk. Your body warms up and your face has a healthy glow. Your heart is beating faster than normal but not racing.
  • Vigorous or high intensity – you are breathing very hard, so you cannot carry on a conversation. Your heartbeat feels fast.

When you are comfortable doing an activity for longer, you can think about increasing the intensity from light to moderate, and then to vigorous. For example, you could walk the same distance but in a shorter time and at a faster pace.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise works your heart and lungs. It uses large muscle groups, such as the ones in the legs. It does this repetitively for a period of time. It makes you breathe harder and raises your heart rate, so your heart works harder to pump blood through the body.

It is particularly good for your heart and cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system includes the heart and the blood vessels that carry blood around the body.

Some common aerobic exercises include:

  • Daily activities

    Taking the stairs, doing housework such as vacuuming or hanging out washing, gardening, walking the dog and playing games with children are all considered moderate-intensity activities.

  • Walking briskly

    This is one of the simplest and most effective aerobic exercises. It is also a weight-bearing exercise, because your feet and legs support your body’s weight. This means it is good for strengthening the bones (the spine, pelvis and leg bones). Brisk walking can be a moderate-intensity activity. All you need are comfortable walking shoes.

  • Gardening

    This is a way of enjoying some physical activity outdoors. Heavier gardening such as digging or pushing a lawn mower can count as moderate activity. Spending time in the garden might also help with stress or anxiety.

    If you do not have access to a garden, there are schemes across the UK where you can garden, grow fruit and vegetables or take part in nature conservation. Green Gyms is one of these schemes. Visit your local authority’s website to see which schemes might be available near you.

  • Running and jogging

    These can be considered as vigorous activity. They are great for your heart and lungs and they are weight-bearing exercises. These activities are high impact and may put stress on your spine and joints. If you have bone or joint problems, you may want to choose something less weight-bearing. This could include jogging on a trampoline, cycling or swimming.

  • Cycling and swimming

    These can be considered as moderate or vigorous activity. They are good for your heart and lungs. They strengthen your muscles but put very little strain on your joints, because they are weight-supported exercises. They can be good activities if you have bone or joint pain. Swimming is particularly beneficial if you have lymphoedema.

    Swimming is not recommended if you have irritated skin due to radiotherapy. It is also not recommended if you are having chemotherapy and you have a PICC line or central line.

  • Group exercise and other sports

    There are other aerobic exercise options you could do with a friend or a group. These include aerobics classes, dancing, golf, tennis, badminton and bowling.

Muscular strength exercises

These exercises involve making your muscles work harder than usual, against some form of resistance. They strengthen muscles, bones and joints. Having good muscle strength makes it easier to do day-to-day things for yourself. It can help you be more independent. This is a good activity if you have, or are at risk of, bone problems.

If you have lymphoedema, you can still include strengthening exercises. You should start slowly with light weights. Then slowly build up the number and intensity of the strengthening exercises. Try to keep the movement flowing as much as possible.

It is important to avoid any injuries or muscle strains, as this could make lymphoedema worse. If you have a compression garment, you usually need to wear it when you exercise. Talk to your lymphoedema specialist nurse if you are unsure about resistance-strengthening exercises.

The exercises can be done with body weights, hand weights, machines or elastic bands.

Exercises you can do at home

You can do simple exercises at home, such as lifting cans of food or bottles of water. There are other simple resistance exercises you can do at home. For example, moving from sitting to standing using a chair or press-ups against a wall.

The NHS website shows you how to do these and other simple exercises safely at home. These exercises are aimed at older people, but they are appropriate for people of any age who want to start moving during treatment or while they are living with cancer.

Some exercise classes focus specifically on strengthening exercises you do while sitting down. These are called seated exercise classes. Ask your GP or nurse if there are any in your local area. Or you can call your local leisure centre to see what is available.

If you are doing a gym-based or circuit programme with resistance machines and free weights, make sure it is run by a qualified exercise specialist who has knowledge of cancer and its treatment.

Flexibility exercises

Working on increasing the flexibility of your joints and muscles helps you stay flexible. It can help prevent injuries and strains. Simple stretching exercises are a good way to start, especially if you have been unwell or have recently had surgery. The NHS website has some stretches you can do. It is best to do these stretches as a daily routine. They will only take you a few minutes.

Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are also good to help improve flexibility. They use breathing techniques combined with body movements. They can also help you relax and reduce stress.

Balance exercises

Yoga, tai chi, Pilates, body balance and qi gong help increase balance and strength. Cycling (but not on an exercise bike) and dancing are also good for your balance.

You can download free booklets about simple balance exercises you can do at home. These are good for building strength, whatever your age.

Finding activities in your area

There are lots of organisations and websites that can help you find out which activities are available near you:

  • Contact your local council. Look on the website or call to find out which activities are provided in parks and leisure centres.
  • Ask your GP if they can refer you to any specialist services. This might be an exercise referral scheme, falls prevention (if you are worried about falling) or physiotherapy (for example if you have had surgery and have problems with range of movement).
  • If you would like to exercise with other people with cancer, search for Move More or physical activity in your local area.
  • On the Be Inspired website, you can find information about sport and fitness venues, clubs and activities across the UK.
  • There is a national search tool for England on the NHS website. Choose ‘sports and fitness services’ and enter your postcode. The website also has suggested exercise videos and podcasts.
  • In Scotland, you can visit Sport Scotland to search for activities near you.
  • In Wales, you can visit Sport Wales to search for activities near you.
  • In Northern Ireland, you can visit Sport NI to search for activities near you.

Walking groups

Walking groups are an enjoyable, social way to become active. There are free, guided health walks across the UK. We have more information about health walks below and how to search for your nearest group.

  • England – Walking for Health

    Walking for Health supports local schemes across England to offer short, free walks. Together, the Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support fund Walking for Health. This helps more people, including those affected by cancer, discover the joys and health benefits of walking.

  • Scotland – Paths for All

    Paths for All has established health-walk groups across Scotland. The walks are all led by a trained volunteer and are less than an hour long.

  • Wales – Ramblers Cymru

    The Ramblers Cymru offers walking programmes for both new and experienced walkers.

  • Northern Ireland – Walking for Health

    Walking for Health group walks are aimed at people who do little or no physical activity but who would like to become more active.

    These groups are led by trained volunteers and are available throughout Northern Ireland. If you are interested in finding out about walking groups in your area or would like to become a trained walk leader, contact the physical activity co-ordinator at your local health trust.

Mobility and disability organisations

There are specific organisations that can help if you have mobility problems or a disability:

Getting started and next steps

Once you have started, you will probably find that being active becomes an enjoyable part of your life. You may notice the benefits quite quickly, such as feeling less tired and stressed, and having more confidence. Noticing these changes and knowing the benefits to your health can keep you motivated, even on difficult days. If you are struggling, do not feel disappointed.

Walking

The benefits of walking:

  • It is an easy, low-impact way to start becoming active.
  • It is very good for your heart and lungs, and can strengthen your muscles and bones.
  • You do not need any special equipment and it is free.
  • It can be part of everyday life and you can increase your activity gradually. For example, you could walk further or faster, or change your route to include more hills.
  • You can walk on your own, or with family or friends. You could join a local organised walking group and meet new people.

Being safe when walking:

  • If you are worried about your balance, avoid uneven surfaces or situations where you might slip.
  • Walk in comfortable but strong shoes.
  • Protect yourself in the sun. Use a sun cream with a high sun protection factor (at least SPF 30).

If you are worried about anything, get advice from your GP or cancer specialist.

Getting started:

  • If you have not been very active before, start with a few steps and build up gradually.
  • Join a local health walk. These are free, and most of the walks are short distances.

Swimming

The benefits of swimming:

  • It is an all-body activity and is suitable for all ages.
  • It can help protect your heart and is good for your lungs.
  • It helps build strength and endurance and is a good activity if you have bone or joint pain.
  • It can be helpful if you have lymphoedema, as it gently massages the lymphatic vessels.
  • Some people might prefer water exercises, for example, aqua aerobics.

Being safe when swimming:

  • If you are having chemotherapy, you might be advised to avoid swimming because of the risk of infection.
  • If you are having radiotherapy, you may need to avoid chlorine on the skin.
  • If you have had surgery, your physiotherapist can tell you which movements and strokes are most suitable for you.

If you are worried about anything, get advice from your GP or cancer specialist.

Getting started:

  • The Just Swim scheme can also help you plan and get the most from your swimming.
  • If you were an active swimmer before, do not be disappointed if you are not at the level you once were. Start slowly and build up gradually.

Getting back into sport

The benefits of sport:

  • Badminton, tennis or squash – these sports are full-body activities and are good for all ages.
  • Bowls – this improves strength, flexibility and endurance. It is quick to learn for all ages.
  • Cycling – this is gentle on the joints. It helps protect the heart and is good for the lungs.
  • Golf – this is good for flexibility. You can play with family, friends or group a club. All abilities and ages can play together.

Being safe when doing sport:

  • If you have bone thinning or cancer in the bones, you should avoid high-impact activities. These are activities where your feet are hitting the floor hard or you are hitting a ball with a racket or stick. For example, running and playing tennis.
  • Wear shoes that fit well.
  • Protect yourself in the sun. Use a sun cream with a high sun protection factor (at least SPF 30).
  • Drink plenty of water and have a healthy snack after exercising.

If you are worried about anything, get advice from your GP or cancer specialist.

Getting started:

  • If you were active before, try not to worry if you are not at the level you once were. Start slowly and build up gradually.
  • If there is a sport you would like to do, you can contact that sport’s governing body to see what is available in your area.

Activity in daily life

The benefits of daily activity:

  • Carrying shopping, doing housework, playing games with children, walking the dog or doing DIY all count as physical activity. This means your heart rate is raised and your breathing is faster.
  • You do not need any special equipment and you can make it part of your everyday routine.

Being safe:

Remember to start gradually. Make sure you pace yourself and rest when you feel tired.

If you are worried about anything, get advice from your GP or cancer specialist.

Getting started:

  • Try standing rather than sitting when you are on the phone.
  • Park the car a little further away from where you need to go. Or get off the bus a few stops early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift, even if it is just for part of the way.

Gardening

The benefits of gardening:

  • It can be relaxing and give you a sense of achievement to watch flowers bloom or eat home-grown vegetables.
  • It can be as gentle as you want, and you can build up gradually.
  • You can garden with family or friends.

Being safe when gardening:

  • Wear shoes that fit well, and wear gloves to protect your hands. This is particularly important if you are more at risk of getting an infection, or you have lymphoedema.
  • Protect yourself in the sun and drink plenty of water.
  • Take care if you are bending down or lifting anything, especially if you have a stoma.
  • Use a garden kneeler or a cushioned pad to make kneeling while gardening more comfortable.

If you are worried about anything, get advice from your GP or cancer specialist.

Getting started:

  • If you have low immunity, check with your GP before you start gardening.
  • If you do not have your own garden, you could use a window box or local allotment.
  • Visit a National Garden Scheme garden for some gentle activity. Find your nearest one at ngs.org.uk.

The National Garden Scheme promotes the benefits of gardening and visiting gardens for people’s physical and mental well-being. It is Macmillan’s longest-standing partner and largest single donor. For more information visit macmillan.org.uk/ngs.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our physical activity and cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Schmitz K, Courneya K, Matthews C, et al. American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2010. 42.

    Thomas R et al. Physical activity after cancer: a review of international literature. British Journal of Medical Practitioners. 2014.. 

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Anna Campbell.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.